The World’s New Leading Actors?

Putin and Erdogan
President of Russia

Earlier this month, the Queen unveiled a memorial to the British personnel who died in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. From conflicts that have taken center stage in Western military engagements since 1990, only a small troop contingent stay on, focused mostly on train and assist missions. No equal military commitment is being offered to Syria, a situation by no means any less urgent than Iraq or Afghanistan. In Washington, a decision on how to engage with Damascus has been all but forgotten. Instead, the U.S. is mesmerized by the bewildering new President’s attempts to “make America great again.” Trump’s isolationism is echoed in Brexit and the populist waves in Europe. There is no appetite to engage in another international conflict under the banner of democratization or liberalization.

While the West battles its introspectiveness and uncertainty about the liberal cause, non-Western states are reshaping who governs the international stage. The Syrian peace talks of January 2017, and the talks this week are characterized by a fundamentally different approach to how conflicts have been negotiated since the end of the Cold War. They are chaired not by the U.S. or the EU or even the UN. Instead, Turkey, Iran and Russia lead the way, holding the talks not in Geneva but in Astana, Kazakhstan, moving the world’s attention away from Western Europe and into the heart of Eurasia.

By negotiating in the Syrian conflict, Russia has gone from being the world’s pariah to becoming a vital international player. Putin’s concern about the West finally recognising Russia as an equal power seems to have changed tact: if you can’t join them, beat them. But more importantly, Russia is creating a space for non-traditional international power-brokers that serves as an alternative to the West. U.S. and UN representatives were invited to the new round of peace negotiations, but they do not have pride of place. Instead, Russia has become the power-broker of the Middle East. And it is not only Russia finding its footing on the international stage; Turkish and Iranian concerns and interests are being reflected throughout the process, which suggests that a tripartite “bloc” will almost certainly form out of the negotiations that will have longstanding trade and diplomatic relations.

Although it may be premature to call this the beginning of a new world order, the Syrian peace talks are introducing a different way of conducting foreign policy. The tripartite bloc’s approach is fundamentally different to Washington’s: it is brutally honest and realist, free from the awkward morality of the liberal, interventionist narrative. Turkey has demonstrated a willingness to be pragmatic and abandon its five-year long requirement for Assad to step down. Iran enjoys its revival on the international stage and its reassurance as the dominant regional player. The Kremlin is not fazed by the civilian casualties that come with targeting rebel strongholds. As Andrew Monaghan of Chatham House stated at a recent lecture at King’s College, the concern itself would seem illogical to the Russians: Why would you prolong a conflict when you can have an overwhelming assault, ending both the conflict and its civilian casualties faster?

This new policy is not constrained by the liberalization and democratization narratives, meaning it does not need to negotiate the kaleidoscope of Syrian rebel groups to find the “least extreme” groupings. The U.S. is no stranger to cooperation with questionable allies, but it is constrained by having to validate this cooperation to domestic audiences. This issue simply does not exist for the tripartite group. Its foreign policy is dictated by prioritizing sovereign territory and the protection of the state, rather than regime upheaval. It is a policy that works with the players as they are, rather than trying to transform them into something more politically palatable. It may be morally debatable territory, but it is a strategy that will almost certainly find favor with growing powers, particularly China, who see successive interventions as fuel for Middle Eastern instability.

It is difficult to know how this new foreign policy will develop, but in large part it will depend on where the EU and U.S. stand. If Trump decides to pursue a Syria policy, he will almost certainly focus on eliminating ISIL rather than removing Assad. If he plays peace broker, he runs the risk of failure and the blame that goes with it. As a result, he is unlikely to want a key seat at the table. The EU and the U.K. will continue to focus on internal issues. Criticism about civilian casualties will continue, but without any concrete commitments to establishing a policy of resolution. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the Western withdrawal from the international stage has left an opening for those states that have been keen to take their place as the world’s leading actors.

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